Odours from the abyss: Jacky in Howards End


I recently read Howards End and, long story short, I loved it. The characters are amazing, the text is endlessly quotable: goblin footfalls, telegrams and anger, the size of each of our islands. It made me think about early 20th century London, it made me think about socialism, and love, and the differences between people independent of historical context. I remembered when a friend showed me the confidence trick quote to comfort me after being fooled, I read whole pages aloud for anyone I could get to listen, I physically restrained my brother until he read the parts about Beethoven's Fifth Symphony.

But when it was over there was a question that was bugging me more than "Would it be tacky to get Only connect tattooed?", and that was "But who provides for Jacky?". Because Jacky is not mentioned at all in the last chapter, where the affairs of the Wilcoxes and of the Schlegels are settled. We get to know both their financial situation and their social one: that Charles wants to change his name, that Dolly doesn't, that Paul (even he gets a paragraph) is resentful to be tied down in England. But not a word on Jacky.

It is easy to imagine, and I do, that Margaret doesn't let her starve. But it bothers me to no end that Forster doesn't say so explicitly.

When I realized this, I wondered whether I have a more general problem with how Jacky is written. It is clear that she isn't treated with nearly as much interest as any of the other characters. She is pitied in an impersonal and vague way, her hostile circumstances are declared "bad" by the narrator, but their tragic aspect is not explored. In fact, she is deemed "incapable of tragedy". To the narrator, Jacky is a convenient metaphor, taken up every now and then. To the Schlegels, Jacky is a vision of the abyss, "like a faint smell, a goblin footfall, telling of a life where love and hatred had both decayed", and her mistreatment by Henry is always an afterthought. When Helen is angry at Mr. Wilcox over Jackie, it is chiefly directed at the way Leonard was ruined by being entrapped by her. When Margaret chastises Henry, his betrayal of Mrs. Wilcox takes up more space than his abandonment of Jacky.

But none of this soured Howards End for me. Forster owns up to how Jacky is not written as a character, stating plainly that "we are not concerned with the very poor". Jacky had sunk under the surface of the ocean, and about these people there can be no narrative. This acknowledgement alone is a very powerful commentary: Jacky cannot be written as a person because society does not allow her to be seen as a person. Her treatment thus becomes a shared failure of the author and the reader, and I liked that.

But even if this was not Forster intention, and he has written Jacky like this because of a shortcoming of imagination or craft, I could still live with it if only her affairs would have been settled in the final chapter (there were many options that made sense: she could have been given some of the income Margaret is renouncing, or some of Helen's or of Henry's). In short, I don't ask that Forster give Mrs. Bast a story or a personality; I just ask that he give her money and not bother about her ideals.

2 comments:

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  2. I don't like the love dramas happening in the 20th century in London. This situation includes many differences between the social levels.

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